PATERSON, NJ – Deputy Police Chief Robert Drace handed in his retirement papers on Tuesday, a move that means acting Chief William Fraher likely will oversee Paterson’s police department at least into the next year.
Drace had been the only one of Paterson’s three deputy chiefs who lived in the city, a factor his supporters had cited as one of the reasons they thought he should be named the next chief.
A 27-year veteran of the police force, the 47-year-old Drace acknowledged he had been interested in the chief’s job. When asked why he didn’t stick around to see if he would be picked for the position, Drace said, “I needed to make the decision that was best for my family.’’ Drace's salary was $168,916.
It has become increasingly clear that Mayor Jeffrey Jones is in no hurry to name the city’s next permanent police chief. James Wittig retired from the chief’s job at the end of January and city officials opted not to be part of the New Jersey Civil Service Commission’s current testing process for police chiefs. The state commission won’t give another police chief’s test until 2013.
Moreover, Jones says he wants to wait to see if Paterson is successful in appealing its 2010 census count to get its official population increased to above the 150,000 mark. That would make Paterson a “first class” city under state law and would allow Jones to conduct a national search for Wittig’s replacement instead of picking someone through the civil service testing process.
On February 1, Jones initially named Fraher as acting chief for a 30-day interim period and said he would create a leadership rotation among the three deputies to help him evaluate their ability to handle the top job.
But five months later, Fraher remains in the position. “I’m not there yet,’’ Jones said when asked about his rotation plans. “I’m still evaluating things.’’
Fraher was Paterson Police Director Glenn Brown’s choice for the acting chief’s position when Wittig retired. Drace had been in charge of the police department’s patrol division when Fraher took over and was briefly reassigned to the executive officer’s post for several weeks before he was sent back to the patrol command.
Brown declined to say how Drace’s departure would impact the command structure of the department. “I’m not going to discuss my game plan until I’ve presented it to the mayor and the BA (business administrator),’’ said Brown.
The director said he had no advance notice of Drace’s retirement. “I spoke to him as recently as Sunday and he didn’t inform me of his plans at that time,’’ Brown said.
Paterson’s other deputy police chief is Danny Nichols. But officials said they believe Nichols currently is not interested in taking the chief’s job. Neither Nichols nor Fraher returned phone messages seeking their comments for this story.
Councilman William McKoy, chairman of the public safety committee, said the fact that Drace lived in the city was an important factor in his favor in evaluating candidates for the chief’s position. “The residency piece says something about the character of the person and their commitment to the city,’’ said McKoy. “I think it give a person a greater level of understanding of the needs of the community.’’
McKoy said he was disappointed that Drace’s retirement would shrink the pool of candidates for the chief’s job. McKoy has said the city ought to seek a state waiver to allow its police captains to participate in the civil service testing process to expand the candidate pool.
City Council President Anthony Davis said he was "sad to see" Drace retire. "I give him credit for knowing the community,'' said Davis, who has said he believes Fraher should be the next chief.
City officials had wanted to reduce the upper echelon of the police department from a chief and three deputies, down to two deputies. Davis pointed out that Paterson now only has two men in those positions. "It creates an opening for another deputy chief,'' he said.
McKoy said he was concerned that the administrative was moving so slowly in picking a new chief. “In light of these recent events,’’ he said, referring to Drace’s retirement, “we’ll call on the administration to give us some general idea of what they intend to do.’’
McKoy said he was particularly concerned about leaving Fraher in the acting position for an extended period of time without an employment contract detailing issues like severance pay. The severance packages offered to Wittig and his predecessor, Lawrence Spagnola, have resulted in controversy.
The City Council in December 2010 rejected a $343,000 severance package for Wittig and then approved a $249,000 payment for him in December 2011. But the state intervened, saying the offer made to Wittig was improper. That situation remains in litigation.
A police department memo issued on Wednesday announced four other retirements in addition to Drace’s. The other retirees are Lt. George Petrakakis, Lt. Paul Savastano and Police Officers James Durkin and Gloria McMillan.
Drace grew up in Paterson and graduated from School 20 in 1978 and Paterson Catholic High School in 1982. He said he currently shares the two-family house in the city’s Eastside neighborhood with his parents. His father has lived in that same house since 1927, he said.
“I love Paterson,’’ Drace said. “I loved being a Paterson police officer and the men and women of the department. I’m going to miss it.’’